RACE IS ON: ANC president Jacob Zuma, flanked by NEC member for KwaZulu-Natal Tokyo Sexwale and provincial chairman Zweli Mkhize during the provincial conference held in Newcastle at the weekend. Picture: MENZI SMITH

REPORTS emerged at the weekend suggesting that Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale was ready to throw his hat into the presidential ring and challenge President Jacob Zuma at the African National Congress's (ANC's) Mangaung conference in December.

It is also said he is trying to be the face of what is being called the "Anyone but Zuma" coalition.

Should Mr Sexwale decide to go ahead with a presidential bid, it could turn Mangaung into a three-horse race: Mr Zuma would be standing against Mr Sexwale and, possibly, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

In politics, it is usually sensible not to bet against the incumbent. Mr Zuma has several advantages over his two possible competitors.

First, he controls the intelligence services and the police. In any political battle, intelligence is the key and Mr Zuma would appear to have an unassailable advantage here.

As seen by last week's decision to move, but not suspend, Lt-Gen Richard Mdluli, this is crucial. By controlling that particular lever of power, it could be possible for Mr Zuma to know where his opponents are at all times - through Mr Mdluli's supervision of the police's VIP protection service - and whom they are meeting.

However, the Mdluli saga could also be used against Mr Zuma. If it is correct that last week's move was sparked by anger and concern in ANC circles, it would be very damaging in the eyes of the ANC members for Mr Zuma to be seen as using the police against his enemies.

He needs to be wary of the "dictator" tag, particularly after that label was pinned on him so publicly by former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

Moreover, incumbency comes with disadvantages.

Mr Zuma used to be greeted with adulation and ululation wherever he went. He was seen as the challenger, the face of hope.

But now he is the face of the government and can be made to appear responsible for every mistake made by the government.

Mr Motlanthe appears to have very few of these problems.

The jobs that government leaders give their possible opponents can sometimes be seen as a measure of the threat that they pose.

Mr Sexwale was given Human Settlements, because it is hard to see how he could possibly give everyone a house. More than 3-million houses have been delivered since 1994, but there is a backlog estimated at 2,1-million. Nearly 70% of the backlog is in urban areas.

As for Mr Motlanthe, he was made chairman 10 days ago of the task team mandated to deal with the e-tolling issue.

Mr Motlanthe's choice is now either to be the face of the government's backtrack on the issue, or to face public wrath by going ahead. There is also political pressure from the Congress of South African Trade Unions to scrap e-tolling. If the task team, with Mr Motlanthe at its head, decides to push ahead with e-tolling, this will put Mr Motlanthe in the middle of tension with the ANC's ally in the tripartite alliance.

From this appointment, it would appear that Mr Zuma is still wary of Mr Motlanthe, despite his silence about whether he will join the presidential race.

Mr Motlanthe's advantages are that he appears to have some access to state power, but is not the face of the government.

However - whether this is true or not - he has been labelled as being close to Mr Malema. This could make it hard for him to win over the middle ground of the ANC.

Delegates at the ANC's national general council in 2010 stood firmly behind Mr Zuma on the Malema issue and they are unlikely to have changed their opinions on him since then. This has possible implications for Mr Motlanthe.

The same would appear to hold true for Mr Sexwale. He testified in Mr Malema's favour during the ANC disciplinary hearing. It is also claimed that he paid R100000 into a trust controlled by Mr Malema.

That - coupled with his decision to challenge what was clearly going to be a two-horse race at Polokwane and then his abrupt about-face days before the conference - would appear to indicate a lack of political adroitness. That may lead some ANC members to believe that he is not serious in his candidature.

At the weekend, the ANC's Kwa-Zulu-Natal province, the biggest in the country, did all but say that it was backing Mr Zuma. This gives him a base from which to work, and a huge advantage in the numbers game.

It would appear that the ANC presidency - and that of the country - is still to be Mr Zuma's game to lose.

With Thabang Mokopanele

. Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter